Art’s not dead at UCSD — at least not as long as we care about stickers and t-shirts. The Guardian spoke to Associated Students Graphic Studio about their contributions to campus culture.
The Bear Garden bears are everywhere. Sometimes they wear costumes; other times they can be seen playing sports. They are often stickers adorning the laptops and Hydro Flasks of UC San Diego students but sometimes appear on posters advertising school events. They seem to come out in fuller force any time a holiday or major campus function rolls around. They are always adorable.
The enduring popularity of the bears on campus is just one testament to the ubiquitous appeal of the designs coming out of the Associated Students Graphic Studio.
Located directly above Burger King and behind the Center for Student Involvement desk on the third floor of Price Center, the Graphic Studio is quietly situated in the midst of student life but also slightly removed from it. The space it occupies once functioned as the campus poster room, stocked with paper, markers, and space for students to draw their posters by hand. Since then, the poster-making materials have been replaced by machines and ink, and have been consolidated into a small closet inside the studio. The rest of the poster room has been repurposed into several computer stations. Students can still make posters there but the process is a bit different now.
The ASGS was founded in 2008 by Roger Revelle College alumna Melissa Ewart. An interdisciplinary computing and the arts major, Ewart, who still serves on the staff as the manager, researched local universities that had similar studios before she set out to create ASGS at the behest of the Associated Students. The decision came as Associated Students set out to build up UCSD’s campus culture by promoting a unified brand to its students.
However, they realized they would need some artistic guidance with what they hoped to accomplish.
The Bear Garden bear is one of the results of this branding push. First drawn in 2008 by Jordan Ma, one of Ewart’s first designers, the new bear transformed an existing UCSD symbol into marketing material. Its current iteration, a product of designer Angela Nguyen’s imagination, gave the beloved symbol mass appeal. A fourth-year human biology major, Nguyen applied to be a graphic artist the summer before starting college and has been with the studio since. Known around the office for her “recognizably adorable graphics,” Nguyen gave the bear cute and relevant themes. She has created the past several Bear Garden posters and bears, as well as the web materials, posters, and set-times for the 2018 Sun God Festival.
“I’ve always loved design and cute illustrations … [at ASGS] I get to do what I love and work with people I love so I’m basically living the dream,” Nguyen said.
Associated Students also solicited Graphic Studio assistance in creating and selling original campus merchandise like apparel and accessories. In addition to supporting Associated Students in their rebranding of student life, the Graphic Studio would provide digital art services to student organizations that also wished to develop their branding. Because not all organizations had the resources and knowledge to handle all of the design and communications of logos, webpages, images, and apparel, the Graphic Studio was also conceived to meet those needs.
One final way Associated Students hoped to increase students’ connection to UCSD was by updating the biggest student event of the year: Sun God Festival. They had lofty goals for the rapidly-growing music festival, including a more enhanced SGF brand, selling SGF merchandise, experience, themed decorations, posters, and banners, and fun new add-ons such as Sun God babies and the Fluffy character. They wanted SGF to have what Ewart called the “full package experience.” Consequently, the first wave of graphic designers at ASGS was instrumental in laying down the foundations of the Sun God Festival that we know and cherish today — for example, when Ma began the Bear Garden bear, he also created Fluffy and the current Sun God logo.
At its inception, ASGS employed two designers and a PR coordinator, all student positions with the exception of Ewart’s. Eventually, Ewart was joined by former colleague and John Muir College alum Alfredo Vilano (who was also an ICAM major) as senior designer. With two alumni spearheading the project, the Graphic Studio was and still is a completely Triton-run endeavor.
As the campus and its community grew, the Graphic Studio grew with it, now boasting six artists and a webmaster. The apparel and accessories front really took off — in 2010, Associated Students and the Graphic Studio launched Triton Outfitters, a venue for selling merchandise designed exclusively by Graphic Studio artists to embody campus culture, and Made TO Order, a custom apparel service also powered by the graphic artists that is available to students and student organizations.
Artists at the studio keep busy. In addition to SGF and Bear Garden, designers are tasked with drawing up promotional materials for ASCE events, A.S. elections, Hullabaloo, Triton Fest, Fall Y’all, and anything else with the Associated Students name on it. They also work directly with Made TO Order clients to create custom designs for student organizations seeking to make bulk branded merchandise. In short, the contributions ASGS student graphic artists have made to campus culture are not insignificant.
With that in mind, it may come as a surprise that none of the artists have received formal training.
“We are all self-taught; you start on GIMP or some other free [graphics editor] and just watch tutorials online,” explained senior economics major Noah Estep, a graphic artist at ASGS and art director of Triton Outfitters. Nguyen also mentioned that she has been making drawings to post on her Tumblr page since high school.
“We’re here to help them as far as we can, technical-wise, but they have literally learned on the job. We give tips and tricks, but we’re not teachers. These are genuinely artistic, talented students,” Vilano said.
In fact, both past and present designers have come from a myriad of mostly design-unrelated backgrounds, including, but not limited to, cognitive science, biochemistry, literature, and economics. Graphic design may not have initially been their intended career path, but the studio was an opportunity for them to see what they could do with their creative side and hone their skills while developing a portfolio and belonging to a school community.
“It was hard finding a connection to campus life, but as I started assimilating into the ASGS family, it began feeling like home. I work with such amazing, talented people and learn so much from them every day,” Nguyen said.
ASGS alumni have gone on to design for companies such as Google, Disney, and Marvel. “It’s so cool that we’re providing an outlet for students who would never think about going into this field,” Vilano said.
The value of the work done by the graphic studio is not lost on its artists either.
“I always love seeing people on campus wear stuff I created. It makes me feel like it was worth it,” Estep said.
For a school that is notorious for being science-focused, the success of the graphic studio is a reminder of art’s application in daily life and that everyone, from Greek life to engineering organizations to sports teams, benefits from good graphic design.
While the Graphic Studio does not actively advertise its services, its most recent project did bring some more recognition to its name. Last month, in conjunction with Triton Fest, the studio put on Make Art: A.S. Graphic Studio’s 10 Year Celebration. Make Art, an art installation that flooded Tritons’ Instagram feeds the whole weekend. The installation allowed students to walk through five rooms centered around Bear Garden bears, vintage Sun God Festival memorabilia, Fluffy, buttons, posters, candy, and more — a homage to ASGS highlights of the past decade. The celebration also included a Maker’s Row, where attendees could make customized t-shirts to be screen-printed on the spot, courtesy of Triton Outfitters, and received ASGS tote bags emblazoned with a message: “Thank you for making art with us!”
But it’s UCSD that should be thanking the Graphic Studio for making art for us over these past 10 years.
When asked what she’s been most proud of since she started, Ewart said, “I’m most proud of seeing where everyone is now. It’s amazing the amount of talent that comes through and inspires us … And it’s always really nice to hear feedback from clients about the work students have created and about any impact we’ve had positively on the campus community.”
Ewart has no plans to slow down. Even when long-time ASGS residents like Estep and Nguyen graduate, the students in the Graphic Studio will continue to pour their creativity and talent into our school.
Photos courtesy of AS Graphic Studio and Triton Outfitters.